02/08/13 — Overcoming their obstacles

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Overcoming their obstacles

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 8, 2013 1:46 PM

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Alaina Brooke Howell, a kindergartner at Tommy's Road Elementary School, listens to her aunt and guardian, Jessica Howell, left, during a recognition ceremony Thursday afternoon by the Wayne County School Counselors Association. Alaina was born with a genetic disorder that causes brittle bones and scoliosis.

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Tammy Munoz, counselor at Greenwood Middle School, reacts after being named counselor of the year. Six students were also honored at the event for their determination and courage.

Alaina Brooke Howell scanned the audience gathered at the central office of Wayne County Public Schools Thursday afternoon, unaffected by the fact that all eyes were on her.

The petite curly-haired 5-year-old was wheeled to the front of the room by her aunt and guardian, Jessica Howell, who has devoted her life to caring for the special needs student.

A kindergartner at Tommy's Road Elementary, Alaina was born prematurely with a genetic disorder that causes brittle bones -- she has experienced an estimated 300 broken bones in her short lifespan -- as well as scoliosis.

And yet she is happiest at school, where classmates consider it a privilege to get to play with her, said her teacher, Karri Jernigan.

The "small child with a big spirit" has had a huge impact on the educator.

"I'm constantly amazed by Alaina's ability to compensate," she said, also praising the caregiver who accompanies Alaina to school each day as a shadow. "I think it's an absolute honor and privilege to know this family and it's an honor to be part of Alaina's life and to be her teacher and to be able to spend so much time with her every single day."

Alaina was one of six students chosen as recipients of this year's Wayne County School Counselors Association award, for overcoming unique challenges and going on to thrive in school.

As part of school counseling week, the annual ceremony also included the announcement of the district's counselor of the year, Tammy Munoz, a 29-year veteran in the profession who now works at Greenwood Middle School.

Mrs. Munoz is from Wayne County, having graduated from Eastern Wayne High School and obtaining an associate degree from Mount Olive College, before earning a bachelor's degree at Barton College and a master's degree from East Carolina University. She started her career in Onslow County, returning to Wayne County in 1996 and working at Norwayne Middle School for 15 years before transferring to Greenwood.

Described as a leader and the "glue" that holds the middle school group of counselors together, she and husband, David, have one son, Ben, a senior at Charles B. Aycock High School.

"I do love this job," Mrs. Munoz said. "My family can tell you that I love this job. I would not have stayed for 29 years if I did not. I love students, I love the staff, but most of all, I love all of my co-workers, my fellow middle, elementary and high school counselors.

"We're in it together and I just hope that I can be a role model to new people coming in. It's not an easy job. Sometimes it's a thankless job, but overall, I feel like to we do make a difference. We may not see it today but I know we make a difference."

The district annually recognizes two students each from the elementary, middle and high school levels.

In addition to Alaina, others presented with a plaque included:

* Alexis Lewis, a third-grader at Rosewood Elementary, has cystic fibrosis, which requires her to have hours of breathing treatments in the morning and at night and to take enzymes to help her digest her food. Yet, educators say she always has a cheerful attitude and is able to be active, both at school and her church, where she sings in the choir and "loves learning about Jesus."

* Nassem Anam, an eighth-grader at Eastern Wayne Middle School whose profound hearing loss was not detected until he arrived to Wayne County in fifth grade. He has been fitted with two hearing devices and gone on to excel in school as well as achieving his brown belt in karate.

* Zachary Folmar, a Greenwood seventh-grader, was diagnosed with a form of albinism, which affects the pigment of his skin, hair and eyes, creating vision challenges.

"This student gives 100 percent to all of his school work," said his counselor, Mrs. Munoz. "He's a team player who helps his peers. He's an advocate for himself and he's very independent."

* Nikki Dixon, a Wayne Middle/High Academy freshman, faced many challenges at home, living with different relatives and experiencing problems that led to her being transferred to the alternative school. Since being at the school, she has shown a marked desire to do well in school and has improved her behavior, attendance, grades and attitude, said her counselor, Joanne Williams.

"If the name Nikki Dixon was in the dictionary, the meaning would be overcoming adversity," she said.

* Jasmine Guercin, a sophomore at Goldsboro High School, is an aspiring brain surgeon whose father brought her and her younger brother to this country for a better life. Born in Haiti, she overcame the language barrier but struggles with being separated from her mother. Her dad has been unable to afford to bring her mother to Goldsboro.

The students recognized are representative of what counselors in the district deal with daily, said Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent.

"You need to look at these kids as role models," he told the audience. "I think they serve as role models in each of their schools because of what they're able to accomplish."